A Wind in the Door (1973), by Madeline L’Engle, revisited

Years ago, I reviewed the first four of Madeline L’Engle’s Time Quintet (which when I was young was called the Time Quartet, which explains much): A Wrinkle in Time (1962), A Wind in the Door (1973), A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), Many Waters (1986) — the fifth in the series, An Acceptable Time (1989), I haven’t read and likely won’t. I also reviewed The Arm of the Starfish (1965) and Dragons in the Water (1976), both of which involve the Murry family. The Arm of the Starfish was written relatively shortly after A Wrinkle in Time (three years) and eight years before the second novel of the quintet, so it might have had some bearing on my review, except that it is situated temporally after A Wind in the Door, involving as it does Meg and Calvin’s daughter Poly.

So why am I revisiting A Wind in the Door, when it — like its companions in the Quartet, with the very notable exception of A Wrinkle in Time — is not really all that good a book? Well, I have recently been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, which when I was young (and indeed until relatively recently) was not considered real. Believe me it is: and it is caused by the failure of the mitochondria within one’s cells, for whatever reason.

When I first read A Wind in the Door as a teen, I found the dancing faranadolae, and the beatnikish psychedelic descriptions of the characters flitting from one place to another — which seemed sometimes to be more for the author’s own hubris than to move the story forward — rather discombobulating if not just off-putting. So mitochondria and farandolae and prokaryocytes were just big words to glance over, slotted into a category: “noun having to do with human biology that the author is using for her specific purpose: may or may not be real.” I later learned that mitochondria are real, and that farandolae are not, as mentioned in my earlier review, but didn’t really care much past that. But when the doctors started talking about mitochondria dying and energy loss, and the interesting mechanisms by which mitochondria replicate either their health or their illness, thus effecting the cells and the human host, I thought back to Charles Wallace and thought I should read the novel again.

I started by rereading A Wrinkle in Time, just because there was an excuse to. It remains as delightful and reassuring a classic as always, if a bit overly assertively Christian at times. As a teen, I saw that as a bonus, not a flaw. A Wind in the Door, though, became — understandably — far more interesting. My biggest question before reading it was: why then? What caused L’Engle, in 1973, to revisit the Murry family — in fact to return to the Murry children, when she had already written about Meg and Calvin’s daughter—and address some weird microbiological subject? The answer to the first part of this, I suspect, is that she needed a character with whom the reading public had already formed a sympathetic bond — i.e., Charles Wallace. The previously established relationship between Meg and Charles Wallace also facilitates the thematic repetition of the climax of A Wrinkle in Time; in both novels, Meg’s love for Charles Wallace (almost storge, the parental love for a child) extrapolated to agape, the universal love of mankind, is ultimately the power that saves. But there had to have been, I surmised, some immediate sort of scientific breakthrough in the news that interested her, as well. I searched for a simple timeline of mitochondrial research, but of course found none. There is a fascinating article by Lars Ernster and Gottfried Schatz, published in 1981, but the history is not simple. I also found a couple of blog posts about L’Engle’s use of science in A Wind in the Door, one of which, “Biology in Science Fiction,” simplifies the history by stating that mitochondrial research

was a cutting edge (and controversial) idea when A Wind in the Door was published in 1973, the endosymbiotic theory of mitochondrial origins having been proposed by Lynn Margulis just six years earlier.

So that explains that. And I will set aside my eye rolls about the teenage attitude of Sporos the farandola, and indeed the whole microcosmos L’Engle builds there, to note that “mitochondritis” such as Charles Wallace had is not a thing, either. I wish it were. Mitochondrial disease/dysfunction is real, but it is not curable in the way that Charles Wallace is cured. What they didn’t know way back in 1973 is that mitochondrial illness is a long-term, seemingly irreparable condition. Once the Echthroi get in, there is no posse of cherubim and Megs and Calvins and Mr. Jenkins to help the little farandolae Deepen, and save the mitochondria and the host organism. So maybe that’s intentionally the exact point at which L’Engle’s novel moves into fantasy. Maybe it isn’t a hodge-podge mixture of science and fiction, but draws a solid line between mitochondrial research (where she’s fairly sound, given what the lay population knew at the time) and the heroic actions of our protagonists and the fara and farandolae as they enact her hypothesis of a fantasy cure in her fictional world.

I know that I came away liking the book better for having a better understanding of (and connection to) the real science, and thus the boundary between fact and fantasy in the novel. I did come away, too, really wishing that the Magic School Bus nature of this fantasy were real, and mitochondrial disease was closer to being understood, prevented, and even cured.


As an aside, one of the articles I read discussing science in the novel, the author of which was pleased that the novel had been their initial source of this fascinating piece of scientific knowledge, included a link to a New Yorker biographical article about Madeline L’Engle that is well worth a read if you are interested in the author at all, and have not exhausted your (I believe it is) two free New Yorker articles for the year. I know have now, but it was worth it. The author’s biography explained so much about her, and clarified so many question I have had about her ideologies and the philosophies underlying her texts.


The Dark is Rising

It’s that time of year again: the annual reading of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, the second volume of the Dark is Rising series. I haven’t, it turns out, ever reviewed it. Can’t think why; likely because it’s so spectacular I have been worried I wouldn’t do it justice. Many a fabulous book has suffered thus. Regardless, I really should. But this year I’m feeling rather fatigued, so I’m only going to write a bit.

One of the reasons I love this book—other than its superior quality as mythic fantasy—is that it is set in the Thames Valley near Windsor, England, where we spent the first four and a half years of our married life. Our first wedding anniversary, early December 1991, was in the fields near Huntercombe Lane, with the grasses covered and bushes covered with hoarfrost. I can picture all of the places Will’s adventures take him, and know that Oldway Lane parallels Huntercombe Lane today (Google maps will show you this…).

This brings me to a point that initially bothered me about the books. Will lives in an area that is just outside of Slough, towards Maidenhead, both of which are in Berkshire. But in the novel, Will lives in Buckinghamshire; he explicitly passes over the boundary from Buckinghamshire into Berkshire during the flood. Turns out, the boundaries were changed in 1974, and Maidenhead and Slough, as well as Eton and a number of other haunts of mine, became part of Berkshire at that time (Berkshire lost land to Oxfordshire at the same time, but those changes did not impact the setting of the novel).

The Long Walk Under Snow, Windsor Great Park, Jan 1991

The snow, too: our first winter there, it snowed. Nothing impressive to us: we had just moved from Ottawa, but for the locals, it was either troubling or exciting. They hadn’t had snow in Windsor for years. The conversation Will has with the other passengers on the bus was one I had too, only in front of the shops on High Street.

Another of the moments in the book that both bothers and satisfies is Herne’s Oak, which grew in a field which is not actually part of the Great Park of Windsor Castle, but in the adjacent Home Park. There’s a plaque there, but the tree itself has long been gone, having been (according to one tradition) felled in 1796. That story has it that a new tree was then planted, which was subsequently also destroyed, either in 1863, or 1906, or… Regardless, the tree is no more, but a commemorative plaque remains. Theory is that the public cannot get to it, as it is on royal property, but I know I did… Still, I didn’t have my camera with me, and that was before the days of iPhones…

It is great fun to read the story and think of the fields and hills as I know them. Then I think: it must be this way for so many of her young readers who actually live in England, this welcoming sense of familiarity. Then I remember the thrill of reading The Robot Detective (an adult murder mystery set in the Nicola–Tulameen Valleys in the 1930s), which is the only published work of fiction I know of in which my home town (Princeton, BC) appears. When I was in grade 4, too, there was a poem in our school reader about rain: it culminated with the lines “I have to love rain, I live in Vancouver!” and I was flabbergasted that a published work actually mentioned a place that was within my ken! Coming from small towns, always, I felt that everything was written about elsewhere, that everything was manufactured elsewhere, that everything happened elsewhere… So when an elsewhere that has become part of my here (granted through years of peregrination) appears in fiction, it makes the story doubly more dear to me.

This year, I’m rereading the entire series. Total indulgence.

Rev. of Carole Gerson and Peggy Kelly’s Hearing More Voices: English-Canadian Women in Print and on the Air, 1914-1960, by Phyllis Reeve

How dare the 1970s Children’s Literature community reject Anne of Green Gables as a “classic,” because the success of LM Montgomery‘s novels was “viewed as symptomatic of their lack of serious value”?

Like Phyllis Reeve, the reviewer of Carole Gerson and Peggy Kelly’s Hearing More Voices: English-Canadian Women in Print and on the Air, 1914-1960, I was appalled to learn of such an opinion. I’m sure that readers of my generation (interestingly, those who would have encountered Anne in the early 1970s) absolutely considered Anne of Green Gables already to be a classic. Another favourite of the reviewer is children’s author and radio presenter Mary Grannan (“Just Mary”). This is undoubtedly why she opens her review with a foray into her childhood reading, and thus why I am posting here. In addition to including children’s authors, of course, Hearing More Voices presents more broadly “aspects of the lives and works of Canadian female writers and broadcasters within a tumultuous period during our socio-economic and political history: 1914-1960.” Like our CEWW project, the authors focus on lesser known writers who, whether they are children’s literature authors or not, are well worth reading about.

Writing and Illustrating Kids’ Books: The Inside Story

Happening now! Sorry I forgot to post.

Here’s the Zoom link.